What has the Māori word for ‘chieftainship’ got to do with a team of scientists looking at obesity in Northland? Answer: the researchers broke the scientific mould by putting the Māori communities — not scientists — in the leading role. Researcher Ricky Bell tells us how they did it.
Rangatiratanga is a powerful word. It’s loosely translated to mean chieftainship, authority, leadership. But it is so much more than that, especially with its history.
In 1840, Māori chiefs from across Aotearoa signed the British Crown’s Treaty of Waitangi in good faith. However the chiefs didn’t know that the Māori version had the word rangatiratanga in place of the word ‘possession’ in the English version. This meant that Māori understood they had full sovereignty over their lands, living spaces and treasures, not merely possession.* Unsurprisingly, this ‘mistranslation’ contributed to a long road of confusion, dishonour and mistrust.
Today, there are still gaps. In the scientific world, rangatiratanga is virtually non-existent. In Māori health research, many projects are subject to sign-off by non-Māori authorities who don’t seem to consider what Māori communities might actually know — or want to know — about their own wellness.
Ricky Bell, his university colleagues, and Northland hapū whanāu (sub-tribal families) are trying to change that.
Ricky (Ngāti Hine, Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Hau, Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri) works as a physiotherapist in Kaitaia, a small town in an area of Northland known as Te Tai Tokerau. Four years ago, local kāumatua and kuia (elders) came to him with concerns about their community’s wellness.
Motivated to help, Ricky applied for a Lottery Health PhD scholarship — and was awarded it. He is now part way through his PhD at the University of Otago and has just published the first paper on this research.
A fresh start
The paper, published in Obesity Medicine, explains why and how Ricky and his team didn’t do their research the ‘usual way’ but instead rebuilt the model so that the Indigenous Peoples were in the driving seat for once.
“The elders I spoke to wanted a fresh start and for it to be done their way,” Ricky explains. “They’d had enough of research being done in their community that was of no real meaning and had no meaningful outcomes. Koretake (useless) was the way one of the elders described previous efforts.”
“This was a real challenge for us, as we had to start all over again and work on a proposal together that firstly satisfied the Indigenous community, and then try and make it fit to the University way of doing things.”
They are now using this new research model to work with Te Tai Tokerau Māori on tackling obesity in a way that accounts for, and is part of, their culture.
Ricky wasn’t expecting to look at obesity, however. It was the locals who drove the research focus in that direction.
“We pretty much had an open book when we had our initial meeting with the community,” he recalls. “Māori are on the wrong side of pretty much every health indicator, so we first had ideas about making the region’s health services better. They knocked that on the head fairly quickly, but in a gentle way. Instead, they knew that obesity was a real problem and wanted work done in that area.”
The hapū whānau at the meeting told Ricky that they wanted to find out what the issues were with obesity, why it was a problem, and understand its relationship to wellness.
The Māori philosophy of wellness — called hauora — isn’t just limited to physical health but includes mental, spiritual and social health, which are all interlinked and can affect each other. Mainstream science is gradually understanding the importance of this, particularly for Māori.
“Obesity research is a big step away from what I’m used to as a physiotherapist and sports injury researcher,” Ricky says. “Some would argue that physiotherapy can be very clinical, but there’s been a shift in the last decade or so where it’s now more encompassing in its approach. The medical professions are slowly catching up to the wellness rather than the sickness model and that remains the challenge for us all.”
The science also confirms obesity as a priority area for Māori wellness. The latest statistics show that almost 50 per cent of all Māori adults are considered obese. Yet until now there have been no research exploring why this is so high, the Māori perspective on what being obese means, or how Indigenous knowledge can help to lower it.
“Health professionals have been saying for more than 30 years to eat less and exercise more,” Ricky points out. “If that was the right approach, we wouldn’t nationally be where we are at now with obesity. I think we can do things a better way.”
The community also told Ricky that they wanted the research done in a way that nurtured strengths within their people, rather than focusing on what’s lacking.
Ricky shares genealogical links with the people of Te Tai Tokerau, which puts him at an advantage because he is able to interpret their needs more easily.
“My line of work’s been helpful but it’s been my hapū whānau who’ve really trained me to do this research,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to have lots of kaumātua and kuia who have groomed me from a young age to where I’m at.
“They have equipped me with the capacity to understand the nuances of Indigenous ways of being and customs. They’ve also tasked me with having to walk in both worlds — Te Ao Māori and Te Ao Pākehā — which is infinitely challenging and often quite draining personally. Without that knowledge, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to do this research.”
Ricky’s local role means he has seen the impact of poor health with his own eyes, leaving him concerned for his community’s future.
“Our people are passing away before their time for reasons that are totally preventable,” he explains. “We need them to stay here longer in a well capacity so they can pass on their knowledge to the next generation and keep us connected to who we are and where we have come from. Like other Indigenous Peoples, for Māori whakapapa holds the world together and defines the nature of relationships between all things.”
The other researchers don’t have these local connections, however, so they’ve had to build their own relationships with the community members from scratch. While Ricky’s blood ties helped move things along quicker, the team explain in their research paper that anyone could do this work — as long as relationships were built and nurtured throughout all stages of the research.
Ironically, Ricky’s strong community connections are a ‘curse’ as well as a blessing. His close ties would mean he may inadvertently influence the accuracy of the research.
To prevent this, the elders and the research team agreed that they needed to have an independent panel of Indigenous experts as well as continually cross-check the research with other scientists.
The panel, called a taumata, is made up of leaders from several local hapū who were chosen by their community to contribute to the research but protect the knowledge of their people. The leaders were chosen based on their skills and knowledge, so they aren’t necessarily elders. Their role is to scrutinize every facet of the research process to ensure that it’s compatible with the Māori way of thinking, being and doing.
But above all else, it could be said that having the taumata exemplifies rangatiratanga. It gives the community the self-determination they need for reinstating wellness in their own people.
For Ricky, this approach will likely open doors for all New Zealanders and not just Māori.
“I strongly believe that Indigenous ways of being can be of benefit to all,” he says. “For me personally, one of the best things that I hope will eventuate from this research is that it’s a starting point to doing things better, a way forward to creating an improved quality of life for all.”
Ricky’s next paper, which will outline what they’ve come to understand about obesity in Te Tai Tokerau, will be published about seven months from now.
“We can’t go from the first rung of the ladder to the fourth or fifth without first laying the foundations,” he says. “This may seem too slow or even frustrating to some, but the process we are following happens within Indigenous time frames and ways of being. To me, that is the beauty of it: a blank canvas on which the Indigenous community paints the story.”
Ricky is keen to kōrero (talk) with others about this research and welcomes any questions or comments.
You can find him on Twitter as @BellRickyNZ.
Tēnā rawa atu koe, Ricky, for sharing your story.
Bell, R., Tumilty, S., Kira, G., Smith, C., & Hale, L. (2016). Using a community based participatory research model within an indigenous framework to establish an exploratory platform of investigation into obesity. Obesity Medicine, 2, 19-24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.obmed.2016.03.001
Photo of Kaitaia: Phillip Capper.